By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 25, 2011 at 4:29AM
When an American studio acquires the remake rights to a new foreign movie, the move always carries a certain amount of condescension. It implies that English language audiences won't bother with a subtitled movie no matter how well it works. It also ensures that, by virtue of vast Hollywood resources, the remake will find a larger audience unaware that they're watching recycled product. That's a fine commercial endeavor to keep Hollywood capitalism in check, but when it buries an original work more worthy of recognition, the good guys lose.
This appears to be the situation with "Sleepless Night," the brilliant, frenetic action vehicle from French director Frédéric Jardin. When Warner Bros. announced its intention of remaking the movie last fall, the news arrived like backhanded insult to the existing project. Jardin's breathless account of seemingly corrupt cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley) whose attempt to steal a bag of coke leads to the kidnapping of his teenage son, speaks for itself so well that cloning it would insult the near-perfect realization of action dynamics.
There's hardly a clean three-act structure here. Jardin avoids exposition, peppering the action with small details but jumping right into the conflict. The coke theft and subsequent kidnapping take place within minutes, and then "Sleepless Night" settles into a seedy nightclub where the majority of the action takes place. Using the nightclub as the movie's only set is a geographical masterstroke, because every instance of running and fighting takes place with an amazing implementation of speed within close quarters. The action alternately takes place in a staircase, an elevator, a kitchen, and a very crowded dance floor.
Despite the ongoing momentum, "Sleepless Night" never loses touch with its story. The credible father-son dynamic between Vincent and scared son is deepened by the estranged relationship he has with his ex-wife, and the lies an increasingly freaked out Vincent must tell her over the phone to keep the worried mother at bay. Meanwhile, the screenplay injects a web of intrigue revolving around the hidden motives of several characters who may or may not be double agents. Exchanging words with a a cop who mistrusts Vincent's claim that he's working undercover, the distressed dad says he's one of "the foot soldiers who have to deal with all the shit in the world," a line that literally describes Vincent's constant rushing from one dangerous situation another and emerging fairly unscathed.
Jardin's energizing action choreography includes multiple trips across a dense crowd of drunken clubgoers, leading Vincent at one point to bust a move to "Another One Bites the Dust" in order to blend in and evade his enemies. Jardin routinely uses the surrounding environment inventive ways, including a hilarious scene where Vincent slides across the kitchen floor on his back, dodging a pole-wielding assailant by opening up one drawer after another while the curious kitchen staff looks on. Even the in-movie audience can't look away.
An experience in constant forward motion requires meticulous timing that can't possibly be replicated. For that reason, the planned remake devalues the precise appeal of "Sleepless Night": Its constant ability to surprise with frantic physicality that defies any possible expectations. These days, even great American action movies usually adhere to formula, not only in terms of plot but also through pure technical execution. The frantic editing technique of countless Tony Scott-caliber spectacles come without rhyme or reason, and generally lack a sense of humor to boot.
By comparison, the vibrant appeal of "Sleepless Night" is predicated on the unique clarity of its direction; any attempt to recreate it would turn this enterprising project into a formula itself. But while the remake is destined to be a snooze, "Sleepless Night" will be lucky if it becomes a sleeper hit.
criticWIRE grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? It was a big hit at the Toronto International Film Festival's midnight section and continued its successful run at Fantastic Fest and Tribeca. The movie wasn't much of a hit in France and has been available on VOD for a few weeks, so it may not see huge returns when Tribeca Film opens it limited release this week. However, strong notices may help the film gain cult status over time.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally appeared during Fantastic Fest last fall.